Leeds United: A disaster in the making - Hay

FLASHBACK: Leeds United players Neil Aspin, centre, and goalkeeper Mervyn Day try unsuccessfully to block a shot from Coventry City's Micky Gynn in the 1987 FA Cup semi final in front of 51,372 fans at Hillsborough.
FLASHBACK: Leeds United players Neil Aspin, centre, and goalkeeper Mervyn Day try unsuccessfully to block a shot from Coventry City's Micky Gynn in the 1987 FA Cup semi final in front of 51,372 fans at Hillsborough.
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The gravest scandal of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was the cover-up which followed it. But there were other failings too; a multitude outlined last week by a definitive report into the death of 96 Liverpool supporters.

The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel laid bare the attempt to smear the crowd in Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane End but the campaign for justice did not end there.

There were more questions to be answered – why had Hillsborough’s safety certificate not been updated since 1979, and why were previous warnings of problems in that part of the stadium neither heeded nor acted upon? As Phil Scraton, professor at Queens University Belfast and a member of the panel, said: “The risks were known and the fatal crush in 1989 was foreseeable.”

Among the echoes of the Hillsborough disaster was the semi-final between Leeds United and Coventry City on April 12, 1987, a match in which United’s supporters were packed into the Leppings Lane End. Here, four fans who were in the middle pens – the scene of English football’s worst tragedy two years later – recount their experiences.

Paul Dews, Leeds United’s media manager – aged 14 in 1987

If you’d been on the Kop at Elland Road then you were used to old-fashioned surges. The difference with the Leppings Lane End was that you couldn’t stand on the same spot for more than a few minutes. If someone moved you all moved, in one big mass.

I was in one of the middle pens but not with the correct ticket. There was so much interest in the game that there were roadblocks coming into Sheffield and I had my ticket checked a few times – but not inside the ground or not that I remember. We filed down the tunnel and everyone gravitated towards the middle of the terraces. It’s what you did.

The overcrowding in there was horrible, although not the worst I’d seen. Middlesbrough and Ipswich away in the 1989-90 season were as bad as I remember, and Ipswich was the one time when I really feared for my safety. But at Hillsborough, each surge threw you down 10 steps. People were climbing out of the pens, trying to get into the seats above, away from the crush. When you saw the pictures of 1989 I really thought “that could have been us.”

I’m not ashamed to say that back then Liverpool’s supporters had a reputation for turning up to games without tickets. But what we experienced made me realise that they weren’t to blame. Had it not been for 1989 I might look back on ’87 affectionately. But I actually think we were bloody lucky.

John Murtagh, seller of materials to the building industry – aged 17 in 1987

I’ve thought a lot about the ’87 semi-final in the last week. Even if the disaster hadn’t happened, that day would still have stuck in my mind.

I was 17 years old and well used to going to decrepit grounds. I was also used to being packed in with thousands of others. When you see the way football stadiums are built and managed now, you really can’t believe how it once was.

That semi-final was a massive game for Leeds but I’ve never been so happy to get out of a ground. When Keith Edwards scored our equaliser and sent the game into extra-time, I was pretty gutted. I thought ‘Jesus, I’ve got another 40 minutes in here.’ I don’t know if I felt afraid as such but there was no way out of the middle pens. Once you were in you were in, with everyone squeezing the life out of each other.

It was so bad that a fan next to me fainted in my arms. He was lucky that the police beyond the fencing opened the gate at the front of our pen and lifted him out. They did him a big favour. But I believed then – and I still hold this opinion – that the police wanted us like that: fenced in and too packed to cause any trouble. To me it seemed like their idea of effective crowd control. What happened in 1989 was no surprise to me.

Michael Sellers, estate agent and financial advisor – aged 17 in 1987

I often wonder what it would have taken for Leeds United supporters to have died in the Leppings Lane End. An extra 200 of us squeezed into the pens? Or maybe an extra 500?

The difference between 1987 and 1989 was a very fine line in my opinion. When I think about it closely I feel very fortunate and so sorry for the Liverpool fans who didn’t make it.

You knew from an early stage that there were too many of us in there but you had nowhere to go – unless you were willing to climb over fences. The police shouted at the fans who tried to lift themselves out, telling them to get down. I don’t think they had any idea how bad it was.

To think that Hillsborough had no updated safety certificate is scary. My worst experience as a fan was at Oldham when I stood in front of a metal barrier and got driven into it. The pain was awful and it hit home when I saw the picture of the Leppings Lane End after the disaster in 1989. The force that must have been needed to twist and mangle the metal is frightening. I can relate to it but I can’t imagine it – and for that I’m grateful.

Andrew Atkinson, employed in newspaper distribution – aged 20 in 1987

It was a big day for Leeds and we got into the stadium early. The worst crushing I recall happened before kick-off as everyone rushed to get into the pens, and the big worry for me was my brother.

He was only 14 and he suffered from Asthma. The temperature on the day was roasting and I wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to cope with the heat and the crowd. You thought you’d seen it all before and in some ways I had because a lot of grounds were designed in the same way but that was my brother’s first away game. I spent most of the semi-final watching him and trying to make sure he was okay.

As crushed as we all were, the atmosphere felt incredible. Leeds were playing in an FA Cup semi-final and that was a first for me as a supporter. But the Hillsborough disaster makes you think about how the away end was, and if you asked me to describe how the fans were managed, I’d say the strategy was to ram as many people into the pens until they couldn’t take any more. It was a way of preventing any bother. The safety of fans didn’t really come into it.

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